Exclusive Excerpt: Without Getting Killed Or Caught — The Life And Music Of Guy Clark

Susanna Clark and Townes Van Zandt, Susanna always Lefty to Townes's Pancho
Susanna Clark and Townes Van Zandt, Susanna always Lefty to Townes’s Pancho. Courtesy Guy Clark

While nailed in the bedroom, Guy wrote the now classic “Let Him Roll,” a song about an old merchant marine named Sinbad, who had hung around the Old Quarter in Houston and worked as an elevator man in an old hotel. “I was trying to write that talking thing, which I got from Ramblin’ Jack,” Guy says. “Trying to re-create Jack’s approach to doing that kind of stuff, like ‘912 Greens,’ the best talking blues.” Guy also scribbled a ditty titled “I Can’t Make This Flat Pick Work,” which was never recorded.

Susanna studied Guy and Townes as they composed songs and believed she could do it too. She first tried her hand at it with Townes when they co-wrote “Heavenly Houseboat Blues.” In the liner notes for a reissue of The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, journalist Colin Escott called it “a trippy rewrite of the mystic hillbilly spiritual ‘Great Speckled Bird.’”

“Townes and I and Guy were driving back in that same Volkswagen bus one night, real late. And Townes and I started singing ‘I’m building a houseboat in heaven.’ And then he’d say, ‘To sail in deep in the sea’—and we wrote that song together, switching lines out,” Susanna told Van Zandt biographer Robert Hardy in 2000. “And by the time we got home, we had written it. And the next day he put it on his album.”

Townes added the song to his seminal 1972 album, recorded in Nashville with producer and colorful character Cowboy Jack Clement. He also cut Guy’s new tune “Don’t Let the Sunshine Fool Ya.” Townes was only the second person to record a Guy Clark song. Harold Lee had recorded Guy’s “The Old Mother’s Locket Trick” as a single for Cartwheel Records shortly before Townes went into the studio.

Part of Guy’s publishing deal required him to record demos of his songs so Sunbury Dunbar could pitch them to singers; the goal was for someone to record a song and make it a hit. But when Guy tried to record his new song “Pack Up All Your Dishes,” Harry Jenkins at RCA told him he could not sing the line “That sumbitch has always bored me.”

“Harry said, ‘Look, you need to think up something beside ‘son of a bitch’; we can’t demo this song this way,’” Susanna says. “We’re talking about the difference between the song getting cut and [making] thousands of dollars or ever getting on the radio. We’re talking serious shit here. We’re living on $75 a week and sending $100 a month back to Guy’s first wife for child support. Harry said, ‘You’ve got to say something else; how about son of a gun?,’ and Guy says, ‘How about motherfucker?’ That was the first time that Nashville learned that Guy was not going to be compromised.”

The struggle with RCA became moot that spring when Jerry Jeff Walker breezed through town and stopped to visit Guy, Susanna, and Townes.

“We all sat around talking and drinking some beers . . . and then Guy said: ‘I’ve had a breakthrough. I’ve written something,’” Walker says. “The first song he played me was ‘Old Time Feeling.’ I thought: That’s really good. That’s put together.” Walker asked Guy if he had more songs, and Guy played a new one called “Pack Up All Your Dishes.” One line of the song came from a canvas of Susanna’s on which she had painted the words “Love’s a Gift That’s Handmade.” Guy was writing the song when Susanna painted it.

Walker needed a couple of songs to round out his first record for Decca. He had moved back to Texas and was recording tracks near his home in Austin and at a studio in New York. He flew to New York with two new Guy Clark songs in his pocket. As he laid down “That Old Time Feeling,” he talked about his old friend Guy. To teach the band “Pack Up All Your Dishes,” Walker sang the chorus a few times:

If I could just get off of this L.A. Freeway
Without getting killed or caught
I’ll be down the road in a cloud of smoke
To some land I ain’t bought, bought, bought

As they recorded, everyone in the studio, including Walker, kept referring to the song as “L.A. Freeway.”

“I called Guy and said, ‘Can we quit calling it ‘Pack Up All Your Dishes’?’ Everybody keeps saying, ‘Hey, that ‘L.A. Freeway’ song is good,’” Walker says.

Decca released the song as the first single on the album Jerry Jeff Walker. The record label was based in Los Angeles, and the promotion team broke the song in the LA market.

Susanna wrote to Guy’s grandmother Rossie: “Guy’s song ‘L.A. Freeway’ is still going up in the charts, especially in California and Texas. The music business is so slow and unpredictable we have no idea what the next turn will be. It’s bound to be good; we’ve spent enough time waiting.”

In Texas, the Hill Country town of Kerrville launched its first folk festival, conceived by visionary Rod Kennedy, owner of Austin’s Chequered Flag, a club Guy had played many times. Meanwhile, KOKE-FM in Austin flipped its format to “progressive country” and “redneck rock,” spinning records by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones. The cosmic cowboy scene sparked in Austin, a town that embraced left-of-center artists. Doug Sahm, Steve Fromholz, Michael Martin Murphey, Willis Alan Ramsey, Rusty Wier, B. W. Stevenson, Willie Nelson, and others were shaking up the status quo at clubs including the Armadillo World Headquarters, the Soap Creek Saloon, Castle Creek, and Threadgill’s. Though Austin attracted many songwriters, Houston native Rodney Crowell headed instead to Nashville, arriving in September of 1972.

“I was living in my car and hanging around Centennial Park with some out-of-work trapeze artist and his wife,” Crowell says. “They posed as Russians, but they were from upstate New York. I got into a conversation with this fella, and he said, ‘Look, who you want to get in touch with is Guy Clark.’ I filed away the name.”

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